Book review of “Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest” by Lynn Darroch: The book focuses on what sets the Northwest scene apart from other cities and the rebirth of jazz in the 1980s.
‘Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest’
By Lynn Darroch
Ooligan Press, $21.95
Lynn Darroch begins his new book, “Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest,” in a moment of triumph.
The year was 2013, and the Portland bassist Esperanza Spalding had won a Grammy (one of her eventual four) with her mentor Thara Memory, a fixture for decades in Portland as a jazz trumpeter, composer and educator.
She was 28, he 65 at the time. She grew up in Portland, a music prodigy, later a scholar, receiving her formal training at Portland State and Berklee. He grew up in the Deep South, and learned by listening, playing and teaching, eventually receiving an honorary doctorate from Berklee.
Their disparate paths to popular acclaim, and the moment of their winning collaboration, a Grammy for best Instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalist(s), stands in as the premise for Darroch’s book, an affectionate, aspirational history of jazz in the Northwest.
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Darroch, a radio host, editor and writer who has lived in Portland since 1979, suggests that jazz music has prospered here with unique efficiency from a culture that encouraged collaboration, sharing and tutelage.
By Northwest, Darroch primarily means Portland and Seattle, spending most of his book on the musicians who worked and lived in those two cities. Portland, by 1981, he writes had “more live jazz than any other West Coast city.” Portland is portrayed as the cultural leader of the two, Seattle more the economic leader, with capital and inspiration necessary ingredients for any creative endeavor.
Darroch also suggests the style of jazz that emerged here is a reflection of the physical environment, the values of the community and our relative geographic isolation. Northwest jazz is more contemplative. It ferments and is a little disconnected, in a good way. It is lumberjack jazz, individualist, inward-driven and quirky. The most commercially successful names associated with the region, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles or Kenny G, are not those who define jazz in the Northwest, Darroch writes.
The book is an underdog story, the musicians portrayed as striving outsiders. It lacks a central narrative — none likely exists — and instead relies on connected anecdotes. Scattered throughout are photographs and page-long vignettes of selected musicians, creating the effect of a magazine.
Organization is a challenge with so many names, dates and places. Darroch settles on a rough chronological structure for his book, defining eras and events and the people key to them. Much of it overlaps, and the sequence can sometimes be hard to follow.
The first half of the 20th century is covered in only two chapters. The real story of jazz in the Northwest is probably the last 35 years, the era on which Darroch spends most of his effort.
The book’s pivotal moment comes as the 1970s end and the 1980s begin, what Darroch calls the “Renaissance.” Two schools, Mt. Hood Community College in Portland, and Cornish in Seattle, are central to the rebirth, incubating the intellectual infrastructure that produced the region’s jazz ecosystem as we know it. Gary Peacock, Jay Clayton, Jerry Granelli, Denney Goodhew, Julian Priester were among the Yodas who trained future knights.
Teachers and students alike leave and arrive each year. The book recounts many examples of those who return, and those who stick around, supporting a virtuous cycle of education, performance, mentorship and creative risk-taking.